Table Setting Guide

by Stephanie Petersen

An elegant table setting sets the tone for a meal, guides your guests through the courses, and informs them of what's to come. Each place setting needs to follow the basic rules, regardless of whether the dinner is formal or casual. With this table setting guide, you'll be able to create beautiful table settings that will never be intimidating to your guests.

Three Table Setting Rules:

Shop Kitchen & Dining

Shop Dinnerware ▸

  • Solids go to the left and liquids to the right.

    This means that small plates, such as the salad plate or bread plate, go to the left of the setting, above the forks, while glassware is set to the right, above the knives.

  • Use flatware from the outside in.

    This means that you use the outermost fork or spoon for the first course and progress inward as the courses continue. Use each utensil for only one course.

  • Only lay out the pieces that will be used.

    If you are the host, it is your duty to give the proper signals about which courses will be served. For example, if you will not be serving oysters, do not lay out an oyster fork. If there will not be a separate cheese service, do not lay out a cheese knife. If there will not be champagne, do not set a champagne flute.

  • Formal Table Setting:

    Formal dinners usually involve several courses, and there are dinnerware, glassware, and flatware pieces for each course. Remember to only set the pieces you'll need for the courses you're serving. All pieces should be about an inch from the edge of the table, and each piece should be spaced apart equally.

    Very formal dinners start with soup and progress to a fish course, the main or meat course, a salad, and a dessert. Regional traditions may dictate the serving of the salad before the main course. At the conclusion of each course of a formal meal, the dishes, glasses, and flatware used should be taken away. The next dishes should be brought out with the food on it and with any special utensils, such as steak knives. The chargers are usually removed before the dinner plates are brought out. The bread and butter plates remain on the table until just before the dessert course. The water glasses should remain on the table throughout the entire meal. When dessert is served, the cups and saucers can also be brought out for coffee and tea.

    • Dinnerware:

      Start by setting the table for the first course, with the charger centered in front of the chair. Place the bread and butter plate at the upper left of the charger. If soup will be served first, you can set the soup bowls on the chargers. A napkin may be set on the charger or in a wine glass. Porcelain and china dinnerware are excellent options for a formal dinner.

    • Glassware:

      For a formal meal, you may use up to five glasses. Glasses should be to the right side of the place setting. The water goblet should be directly above the knives. To the right of it is the red wine glass, which will be used with the main course or meat course. The white wine glass is set to the right of the red wine glass; it will be used with the fish course. The champagne flute is placed behind the two wine glasses to form a triangle if sparkling wine will be served with dessert; however, if champagne will be served with oysters, the flute is placed to the right of the white wine glass, near the oyster fork. If a dessert wine will be served, the corresponding glass should be to the right of the champagne flute.

    • Flatware:

      Remember that all flatware should be laid out so that guests will progress from the outside in. Forks are placed on the left, with the exception of the oyster fork, which, if used, is placed to the right of the spoons, often at an angle. The dinner knife is placed on the right side of the charger with the blade facing in, followed by the fish knife (if used), with the soup spoon to the right of the knives. If used, a table spoon or place spoon is set between the soup spoon and the knives. The butter knife is laid across the bread plate with the handle to the right. The dessert fork is placed horizontally above the charger with the handle to the left, and the dessert spoon is placed above it with the handle to the right. If needed, the cheese knife is placed parallel to the dessert fork. In North America, the forks are placed with the tines pointing up, while in Europe, the tines point down. Silverware, gold-plated flatware, and silver-plated flatware are traditional formal flatware options, but they do require some special maintenance, especially silverware, which tends to tarnish.

    Casual Table Setting:

    Casual dinners have fewer courses than formal dinners, so you'll have less to worry about when setting the table. The placement of dinnerware, glassware, and flatware follows a similar pattern to their placement in formal dinners. Casual dinners usually only have two or three courses, including soup or salad, the main course, and dessert.

    • Dinnerware:

      For casual dinners, you don't need to use a charger if you don't wish to. Place the dinner plate in the center, with the salad plate above it and to the left, next to the bread and butter plate. Place the napkin on the dinner plate or to the left of the forks. The dessert plate may replace the dinner plate when the main course is finished.

    • Glassware:

      You only need two glasses at a casual place setting: one for water and one for whatever other drink you choose to serve. These can be matching goblets or two different glasses. Place the water goblet directly above the knives with the other glass to the right. Colored glass or glassware with interesting designs makes the table setting more visually interesting.

    • Flatware:

      The dinner knife is to the right of the plate with the blade facing in; if you'll be serving steak, the steak knife can replace the dinner knife. The soup spoon is to the right of the knife. On the left side of the plate is the dinner fork and salad fork. Remember to place the fork for the first course on the outside. You may place the dessert fork and spoon above the plate as in the formal setting or line them up next to the plate. If you place them next to the other flatware, make sure the dessert fork is closest to the left side of the plate because you'll eat dessert last, and place the dessert spoon between the knife and the soup spoon. The butter knife goes on the bread plate with the handle to the right. Stainless steel flatware is appropriate for casual dinners.

    Table Setting Tips

    If you know beforehand that one of your guests is left-handed, seat that guest at a left end of the table, so they have room to use their dominant hand, and reverse their place setting components. If you are unsure, you can set the table as usual; your left-handed guest will likely not be insulted and is probably accustomed to trading utensils from the right hand to the left.

    Not sure which fork to use for each course? Worried you'll pick up the wrong glass? When in doubt as a guest, watch the host for clues.